The only true constant is change and change is what is required at Ottawa City Hall.
A theme that has emerged this week on The Bulldog is how many city projects, initiatives and policies have gone sideways. The LRT is six months late unless it is more. It is over-budget, but we don’t know by how much. The underground sewage tunnel overflow storage project is at least six-months late, and likely over budget, but we don’t know by how much. The integrity commissioner stating that he doesn’t have jurisdiction to investigate the $10-million Christmas Miracle (did College Councillor Rick Chiarelli apply for a trademark on that?), which when you boil it down to its basics is truly a matter of integrity. Add in Innes Councillor Jody Mitic’s poor judgment regarding his affaire de coeur with a member of his staff, and let’s close with the arrogance of the Friday evening press releases.
I don’t just mean the need to change some of the individuals who populate the council chamber. That type of change is required, but that is not the only change needed. What’s needed relates to the behaviour of the people in the council chamber.
Cynicism starts with a lack of faith in the system. Cynicism leads to low voter turnouts. Cynicism leads to a lack of respect, not just for the individuals who behave poorly, but for the offices they hold. To combat cynicism the system that needs change. What breeds cynicism is the overt, blatant decisions by the people in positions of authority to choose withhold the status of major projects when the leading indicators are all flashing yellow.
City staff knew months before the municipality announced the LRT project would be late. They might not have known how late, but they knew it would be late. They would have briefed the mayor’s office, and likely the chair of the transportation committee. Failure to do so would be career-limiting. The decision to not disclose the situation to the public was political. City staff likely knows approximately how much over budget the project will be, and they likely have briefed the powers that be. Again, the decision to not disclose the current estimate of how much over budget the LRT project is political. The same comments apply to the underground sewage overflow storage project.
The decision to share the $10-million Christmas Miracle was a political decision. Staff advised the mayor’s office, the mayor acknowledged that he shared that information only with his inside circle.
The cause of the problem is becoming clear. We have a mayor who is more intent on managing the information he has than in sharing it with his fellow councillors and the public. This from the person who, some eight years ago, ran on a platform of open, transparent and accountable government.
Accordingly, the solution is not just in changing who sits around the council chamber. It has to start with what the people who sit around the council chamber perceive to be how they should behave. Are they “governors” who happen to be politicians or are they merely politicians in a position of governance? Are they in favour of governing in an open, transparent and accountable manner or do they content to just mouth the words? Are they people of integrity who demand that those around are also people of integrity?
The starting point is to acknowledge the current system has been abused and to take steps to limit the ability of those who have abused the system to continue that behaviour.
Council should make it clear, as it did during former mayor Larry O’Brien’s ill-fated tenure, that the mayor is but one vote. Council needs to set its authority early, to ensure that the mayor’s office does not control the release of information that every councillor is entitled to receive. Its members should set the requirement that all reports that will eventually be circulated to council be circulated directly by staff, not by the mayor’s office. Why? Because the current occupant of the mayor’s office has abused his privilege far too often, for his political advantage.
Second, council should not support any motion that limits its authority over the city budget. For the last two terms councillors have operated under a self-imposed restriction. If they want to add funding to a specific area, they have to identify an equal number of dollars to be eliminated from another specific area.
Finally, the integrity office should either have the authority to investigate all matters of integrity, or it should be disbanded, with the funds spent on worthwhile initiatives. Why? Because, during the Senate-expenses fiasco, Senator Vern White made the most important observation of that whole sordid episode – it all starts with integrity.
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.